Each year Tazewell County’s jail makes room for about 500 people with mental health issues ranging from slight to severe. Many are repeat visitors.

They cost significantly more to house and feed than the $40,000 the County Board has earmarked for the new Mental Health Court (MHC) that opened last week, after 16 months of preparation.

The jail, meanwhile, is not in the business of counseling those whose crimes were the products, at least in part, of their mental problems, said Sheriff Robert Huston.

That help will now be available through the MHC process that joins Drug Court as a potential alternative to incarceration for non-violent offenders.

“The plan is to address problems through counseling and medication, with the goal to keep (MHC clients) out of custody,” said county Chief Public Defender Luke Taylor.

“The (MHC) team is extremely excited about being up and running, and extremely motivated to help these people,” he said.

The team, comprised of Taylor, an assistant state’s attorney, Judge Michael Risinger, two county probation agents and counselors from the Tazwood Center for Human Services, got the go-ahead to launch MHC last month when it was officially certified by the Illinois Supreme Court.

That was a 16-month process. The high court last year adopted statewide standards to oversee new so-called specialty courts as well as the more than 100 already operating in the state.

Tazewell’s MHC will begin its work with the case of a man charged with retail theft at the Walmart Supercenter in East Peoria. Like all defendants referred to the program by the county prosecutor, the team’s counselors must first determine if he suffers from what Taylor described as “a significant mental illness” before he’s accepted into the MHC program, which can last “two years or longer,” depending on each case.

Success in the program “will impact (a defendant’s) ultimate sentence” for his or her charge, or possibly merit its dismissal, Taylor said.

That’s how Drug Court works. Success for its clients, however, is measured by simple means. Clients must remain free of drug use and further crimes and show obvious effort and improvement in their lifestyles.

For a person with a mental illness, a sign of progress “might be taking a shower in the morning,” said Susan Walker, one of the county probation officers serving on the MHC team. “Or getting a job.” Grading an MHC client’s success “will be very subjective, very specific to that person.”

Clients will be served and graded by counselors with Tazwood, whose fees will be paid by insurance if a client has it. If he doesn’t, “We’ll try to bridge that gap through the Affordable Care Act” by enrolling him in the federally supervised insurance program, said county Director of Probation John Horan.

The $40,000 allotted by the County Board for the current fiscal year will be available to cover remaining costs. Horan said how long it lasts will depend in part on how many clients the MHC will take — which, in turn, will be limited by the available funds.

Also in play “will be how many clients the (Tazwood) counselors can handle,” Walker said.

They’ll start with the Walmart theft defendant, whose criminal history includes prison for aggravated battery and forgery.

If he’s accepted into MHC and responds well enough to its treatment to avoid future crimes, the cost for those services “will be cheaper than sending him back to jail,” said Dale Thomas, his defense attorney.

Follow Michael Smothers at Twitter.com/msmotherspekin